“From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is…”
When I read the opening lines of Constantine Cavafy’s The Ships, I shouted “Ahoy!” with recognition.
I’m embarrassed by how thrilled I was. It’s not like I want Cavafy to founder chartless in deep troughs the way I do when I write, but since he seems to understand the feeling, I’m really glad to think I’m not alone.
“In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles…”
Oh, the shimmering, fragile things that glisten like bubbles in my mind’s eye before I reach, clumsy, and shatter them.
“…huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts…full of treasures…”
I’ve glimpsed these gleaming in sunlight on the horizon although they don’t sail into the harbour of my mind. Alas, just as Cavafy describes, it’s just not deep enough.
Last week my notebook and I boarded a real sailing ship, Maple Leaf, for a cruise through Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Because the trip was six days, I had lots of time to see the ship in action and at rest, and I was struck by her beauty and pragmatism. She was built in 1904 of sturdy, pretty, and local Douglas fir and cedar. The big red appliqué on the mainsail identifies her. Even the perfect little mats of knotted rope are there to protect the decks from block-and-tackle beatings. They’re lovely, sure, but they have a purpose beyond decoration and that’s a destination that all writers should strive for.
Constantine Cavafy made that port. He crafted poems like Maple Leaf, of varnished mahogany and polished brass, using 800-grit sandpaper and ancient flannelette rags. Even after a hundred years, his brightwork shines above dangerous waters and on the long voyages every image in his prose poem unfurls in my mind an emotion. Fear, frustration, or hope. Sorrow when I must jettison a load of pyrite because although it glitters it is not the malleable gold I need. Delight when I find a box labeled Sheets that actually contains sails.